Open Television gives a platform to intersectional stories in the Chicago film scene
May 8, 2019
Three years ago, Communication Prof. Aymar Jean Christian was conducting research on the distribution of original web series. Through his interviews with independent artists, Christian saw the innovative, experimental and inclusive work of these creators struggle to find an audience. By the time his book, “Open TV: Innovation Beyond Hollywood and the Rise of Web Television” was published in 2018, most of the over 100 creators he spoke to had had their series shuttered.
To aid in his research, Christian decided to create an alternative distribution site for web series. His project, Open Television, has since become a platform for talented, diverse creators in the Chicago independent film scene, bringing attention to unheard voices and creating major success stories out of small-scale shows.
“The work I do is really about showing how much cultural capital there is amongst people that we haven’t historically viewed as having cultural capital,” Christian said. “And I think that matters for our culture — that we allow these stories to be told.”
OpenTV is a website that distributes web series from Chicago filmmakers, with specific emphasis on promoting the work of intersectional artists and telling stories about intersectional identities. The channel has distributed over 40 series, all of which Christian describes as “his children.” Series from its 4th season recently premiered in April at an event hosted by the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago.
Christian describes OpenTV’s process as “totally organic.” He meets with anyone interested in getting distributed by the platform, as long as they either have intersectional identities or are creating a story dealing with themes of intersectionality. During the initial meeting, he sees where they are in the process of creating the series, and points them towards resources such as grants or crowdfunding workshops.
When a project is completed, the show premieres on the platform, and OpenTV offers social media consultations to help the creators get traction online. OpenTV also holds screenings in Chicago, during which the audience is surveyed — both so the creators can get feedback and to help with Christian’s research.
“It really is totally bottom-up, it’s really just me connecting people to other people, to workshops and resources to help them make their way,” Christian said.
Since its creation, OpenTV has seen several breakout shows, most notably “Brown Girls” by Fatimah Asghar and Sam Bailey. The series, about the friendship between a queer South Asian woman and a black woman in Chicago, received an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Short Form Comedy or Drama Series, and the creators received an HBO deal to develop the series into a full-length show. Bailey, who also created the very first OpenTV show “You’re So Talented,” has found success as a mainstream TV director, recently working on the Freeform TV series “Grown-ish.”
Besides “Brown Girls,” Christian says there are many other notable success stories from OpenTV creators. Some of the most notable include Dewayne Perkins, who has written for the Netflix sketch comedy series “The Break with Michelle Wolf;” Fawzia Mirza, who wrote for Ava DuVernay’s currently-airing series “The Red Line” and premiered a feature film at SXSW Film Festival; “Transparent” producer Zackary Drucker; and “RuPaul’s Drag Race” contestant Shea Couleé.
“It just goes on and on and on,” Christian said. “It’s been really remarkable to me how much talent comes out of Chicago. And of course we’ve known this, with Tiny Fey, Amy Poehler, Second City … we’ve known that talent comes from Chicago, but I think we’ve tapped into untapped sources of talent that maybe have been historically overlooked by the industry but we’ve put them all in one place and said ‘Look, there is this work happening in the city of Chicago right now. You’re going to want to sweep these people up because they are going to go on to do amazing things.”
Many of the creators Christian has worked with through OpenTV have been Northwestern alums, including the creators of “The Right Swipe,” a show from Northwestern alums Kyra Jones (Communication ’14) and Juli Del Prete (Communication ’14), which was featured at the MCA premiere this year. The two brainstormed the idea for the series one night when, after cancelling plans to go out due to cold weather, they swiped through dating app Bumble for fun and noticed how lackluster many men’s profiles were. They came up with a business idea that fixed people’s dating profiles for them, then decided to make this idea the premise of a web series when they realized the business would require them to actually talk to men. The friends mapped out the entire first season of the show that night and began production on it shortly after.
Del Prete said the series plays with conventions of romantic comedies — rather than men learning to pick up girls like in many matchmaker comedies, the series follows women teaching men how to be worthy of girls. The series defies another romcom convention, she said, by focusing on the difficulties of dating for people of marginalized identities. Over the course of the series, the two main characters, played by Del Prete and Jones, work with clients, like trans men and Asian men, who face obstacles on dating apps. According to Del Prete, Asian men in particular get the lowest swipes of anyone on dating apps such as Tinder. Del Prete said they wanted to reject the traditional white, heteronormative view of love that romantic comedies usually portray.
“Something we wanted to do was (to show) that everyone is worthy of love and belonging, even if you’re on the fringes of what society has traditionally seen as desirable and loveable,” Del Prete said.
Jones said she previously knew about OpenTV through acting gigs, so when the two came up with the idea for “The Right Swipe,” she knew she wanted to bring it to the site.
Having “The Right Swipe” on OpenTV was great exposure for the show, Jones said, in part because of the screening at the MCA, which sold out and allowed many people to see the series. Jones said OpenTV has many initiatives to help creators, such as workshops and programs to place alumni in LA with writing jobs.
“It’s really hard to build an audience by yourself,” Jones said. “To just put something on YouTube or put something on Vimeo and be like ‘hope that people watch it.’ So to be on a platform that has already built an audience that is looking for the content you’re creating is really great … it’s not just the exposure of having it on the site, but also the resources and the community that OTV provides.”
Christian said he is passionate about OpenTV because he sees it as an opportunity to do right where the mainstream TV media has mostly failed, to start conversations about identity and to help bridge social divides.
“It’s important that these stories are told because we need to value everyone in American culture. Period,” Christian said. “America is a big complex diverse country, and if we don’t hear from every kind of experience, we’re not going to know how to make society better.”
Read more from May’s issue of The Monthly here.
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